The monkey puzzle tree is an evergreen conifer native to the highlands of Chile and Argentina. It was originally imported to Europe in the 1800s, and became a popular addition to botanical gardens because of its unusual and distinctive appearance. Because it is an evergreen, the tree is often used as an ornamental, and is also used as a timber resource in addition to providing edible nuts. Since the trees are more valuable alive, the monkey puzzle tree is rarely cut for timber, but when it is harvested, it provides long, straight, close grained timber. Harvesting of the nuts has put survival of the trees at risk in some parts of South America.
While trees vary, the monkey puzzle tree can exceed 131 feet (40 meters) in height. It has triangular-shaped leaves that resemble sharp scales. The small leaves cluster along the branches, making the trees and branches rather difficult to handle without incurring painful injuries. In nature, it prefers high elevations that receive winter snowfall. As the snow gathers on the older low branches, it breaks them off, leaving the tree with a crown of branches at the top and a smooth trunk below. When cultivated, the lower branches are allowed to remain, making the tree much bushier than it is in nature.
Higher elevations are the preferred growing environment for the monkey puzzle tree, which also appreciates temperate climates such as those in areas near the ocean. The plant does well in USDA zones seven and above, and is both frost and drought tolerant. Because of the spiny leaves, the tree may not be the best choice for an intimate garden, but it can make an interesting decorative addition in an area with plenty of space to grow. The edible seeds can be harvested and used like nuts, or used to sprout new trees, which take around 40 years to mature.
The tree's scientific name is Araucaria araucana. When it was first brought to Europe, it was called “Chilean Pine.” The common name appears to have emerged in the 1850s, when contemporaries commented that climbing the tree would puzzle a monkey. In some regions, the native name for the tree is supplanting the former common name, which is why a monkey puzzle tree may be referred to as Pehuen as well.